Three books out this week explore the science behind aging, paranormal phenomena, and our solar system.

Why We Die: The New Science of Aging and the Quest for Immortality

Venki Ramakrishnan. Morrow, $32.50 (320p) ISBN 978-0-06-311327-5
This discerning study by Ramakrishnan (Gene Machine), a Nobel Prize–winning molecular biologist, examines the science of aging and efforts to stop it. Discussing the molecular processes that contribute to aging, he explains that the ends of chromosomes feature repeated genetic sequences, some of which are lost every time a cell divides until the replicated sequences have been exhausted. At that point, the cell stops dividing, reducing the body’s capacity to regenerate tissue. Ramakrishnan demonstrates a healthy skepticism when surveying attempts to extend human life, suggesting that while some animal studies indicate calorie-restricted diets and transfusing younger individuals’ blood into older patients might slow aging, there’s not yet enough evidence that these strategies would work for humans. The author has a knack for making biology accessible (“You can think of damage to mitochondria from oxidation as a case of our cells rusting from within”), and he brings a searching philosophical sensibility when considering the wisdom of seeking to extend life, cautioning that “a greatly extended life span would deprive our lives of urgency and meaning, a desire to make each day count.” The result is a strikingly pensive exploration of how bodies decline and whether efforts to slow that process are worth the cost. (Mar.)

The Science of Weird Shit: Why Our Minds Conjure the Paranormal

Chris French. MIT, $29.95 (424p) ISBN 978-0-262-04836-1
This fascinating inquiry from French (coauthor of Anomalistic Psychology), a psychologist at the University of London, provides scientific explanations for such otherworldly phenomena as alien encounters, déjà vu, and ghosts. For example, researchers of near-death experiences have proposed that the frequently reported sensation of “moving through a tunnel toward a bright light” is likely caused by random neurons firing in the visual cortex as a result of physical duress; because “there are more cells devoted to the center of the visual field than to the periphery,” these firings are likely to be perceived as a bright, central light. Debunking ghost sightings, French cites a study that found subjects were more likely to report “physical, emotional, psychic, and spiritual experiences” after exploring a disused movie theater if they were told it was haunted beforehand, suggesting that paranormal perceptions might be biased misinterpretations of “creaking floorboards or cold drafts.” According to French, mediums take advantage of the Barnum effect, which describes the tendency for people to believe that such vague statements as “you have a great need for other people to like and admire you” are personalized and accurate. The science intrigues, though the scholarly prose somewhat saps the fun (“Absorption, dissociativity, and fantasy-proneness have all been shown to intercorrelate with each other as well as with paranormal belief”). Skeptics will feel vindicated. (Mar.)

The Asteroid Hunter: A Scientist’s Journey to the Dawn of Our Solar System

Dante Lauretta. Grand Central, $30 (336p) ISBN 978-1-5387-2294-7
In this stellar debut memoir, planetary scientist Lauretta details his work as the principal investigator for NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission, initiated in 2011 to retrieve an asteroid sample that arrived on Earth in September 2023. While working at the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, Lauretta discovered that schreibersite (a compound “ubiquitous in meteorites”) forms substances critical to life when dissolved in water, suggesting asteroids might hold “the key to understanding the origin of life on Earth.” Invigorated, Lauretta signed on to NASA’s mission to collect a sample from the asteroid Bennu. Recreations of planning sessions between engineers provide captivating insight into the hard work and ingenuity that went into the mission. (Lauretta explains that calculating Bennu’s weak orbit required his team to pioneer a novel way of determining an asteroid’s mass by measuring how much heat it emits.) The author is a talented storyteller, spinning a gripping narrative out of scientists’ efforts to overcome unforeseen obstacles under intense pressure (“Suddenly, I heard a brief gasp of surprise off to my right.... My mouth fell open as I glanced at the scene that appeared on [the] screen,” he writes of learning that “Bennu’s surface had just exploded” for poorly understood reasons). Armchair astronomers should consider this a must read. Photos. Agent: Lauren Sharp, Aevitas Creative Management. (Mar.)